Vacation dream home best left to your dreams

I can remember every essay I’ve ever read about someone closing up a summer home in the woods, by the shore or on a lake. There’s a beautiful melancholy about closing windows, draining pipes, putting slip covers on furniture and saying goodbye to the memories until next year.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a retreat in the woods, a sanctuary in the wild. We don’t have one; but we rented one for a long weekend. Eleven of us packed everything but our kitchen sinks and traveled hours of interstate, state roads, busy local roads, not-so-busy local roads, switchbacks with steep drops and vertical climbs passing old barns collapsed under the weight of time.

There it was on the crest of the ridge—a cabin more beautiful than the pictures on the website. The views were majestic, postcard panoramas of the Great Smoky Mountains.


Who couldn’t make memories here? Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?

“Maybe a few of us could go in on one” someone said, half joking.

“People make money owning vacation homes.”

“An investment like this would probably pay for itself in a few years. Someone is sitting on a gold mine.”

Kids raced through the cabin exploring bedrooms and bathrooms, reporting on a soaking tub with jets, a steam shower and – joy of joys – a hot tub.

We gathered on one of the decks and watched the sun slowly disappear, painting the rippled mountain ridges a soft steel blue. Leaving the city and jobs and routine behind, there was a collective exhale.


Night fell and bats fluttered near the deck, darting in and out of the tree tops. The next morning, bat droppings covered the railing to the deck and the front porch. I swept them away, but there were more bat dropping throughout the day on the front porch.

“Bats must be nesting in the eaves. The owners should probably call a professional,” someone said.

By afternoon, large bees were buzzing by. Carpenter bees were drilling perfectly round holes into the wood beams of this lovely retreat.

“The owners should probably call a professional.”

“Wonder what the taxes are on a place like this?”

“And what about cleaning and property management fees?”

We took a long, meandering scenic drive, the sort you take when backroads are not well marked, hiked a winding trail and hit a tourist spot in town. We also just lingered at the cabin sharing meals, playing board games, chase, hide and seek. We enjoyed every inch of that lovely home, the very one with the steam shower that didn’t work, two broken chairs and a loose footboard on a bed.

We left that house in the hills with the same sweet melancholy others have described, taking one last look and closing the door to a wonderful time. We took our memories with us but left the bedding, wet towels and maintenance expenses behind. It may be the best way of all to enjoy a cabin in the woods.

Keeping secrets is a gift

It’s no secret that there are people who can keep secrets and people who can’t. There are people who can keep things in the vault until the day they die and people whose vault door constantly swings open.

When our oldest daughter and her husband were expecting their third, he wanted to know the gender and she didn’t. Despite all our attempts to get him to crack, he never did. You could trust the man with your social, your PINs, computer password and true weight.

We have one in the family whose vault door might as well be double-hinged. Try as she might, she can’t keep a secret.


“I know it’s going to be your birthday, Grandma,” she says with an impish grin. “How old are you going to be?”

“How old do you think I’m going to be?”

“Twenty-two. That’s pretty old.”

“You’re close. I’m actually going to be 23.”

“Whoa,” she says, drawing the word out for maximum impact.

The funny thing is, I look in the mirror a lot of mornings and say the same thing myself.

“Mom said she would take me shopping because I wanted to buy you a present myself and I did.”

And with that, the countdown begins. It is just a matter of time before she spills the beans. Ten, nine, eight . . .  every fiber of her being is about to explode.

“Mom took me to Stein Mart. We had a coupon!” Seven, six, five . . . she squeals and jumps out of her chair with excitement. The kid may not be able to keep a secret, but at least she is learning you never pay full retail.

“I don’t want to know what you bought,” I say.

“Oh, yes you do!” The kid is a mind reader, but I can’t tell her that.

“You like turquoise. I know you do.” She is hopping from foot to foot, twirling in circles, her squeaky little voice rising higher. Four, three, two . . .

“You don’t want to know if I got you a necklace?”


“OK, I won’t tell you.”necklace2

She sits down and begins to draw. She draws a semicircle with turquoise shapes bordering it on one side and then, beaming from ear to ear, holds the drawing up to her chest.

“I think I’m going to like it,” I say.

When her mom picked her up, she immediately admitted to telling the secret. She said she had spilled the beans—that her stomach had hurt because the beans needed to come out. Isn’t that how it always happens? It’s not your fault, it’s the beans’ fault.

On my birthday I unwrapped tissue paper in a gift bag and pulled out a lovely turquoise necklace strikingly similar to a drawing I’d seen the day before.

The kid may never have a career in espionage, but she definitely has a future in art.




How do you raise kids in a world like this?

Used to be we often muted the news when the kids were in the room, but these days we don’t even turn it on. And our kids are in their 30s.

Oh, the kids can take it alright, it’s the grands and the little ones we worry about.

The world has become a 24/7 news cycle of screaming sirens, flashing lights, shootings, robberies and racial strife with police in the crosshairs, all of which is punctuated by the occasional Wal-Mart brawl.

In my hometown, we’ve had three amber alerts in two weeks, an 82-year-old man shot in his driveway and a mother who confessed to smothering her two children with her own hands.

We’ve grown numb.

We barely turn our heads when another teacher or coach is charged with molestation.

Fifteen years out from 9/11 and terrorism is not behind us; it is all around us.

And then there’s the political corruption—seemingly without end.

The cherry on top of this sundae is a growing narcissism screaming for attention, constantly beating the drum on the many ways we are all offended. College students, increasingly delicate, now require speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings.

The mob rule of Twitter or Facebook is the new court of justice. The standards of right and wrong that held us together for centuries seem to be crumbling.

So how do you raise kids in a world like this? In a world that some days feels like it is in a free fall?

You do it the same way generations before have done it. The same way others have leaned in to the winds of the unknown and the uncertain, upheaval, unrest, strife, tragedy and even war.

You start with the premise that (trigger warning) life isn’t easy.

Then you create a home that is a shelter in the storm, a place where family and friends can be comfortable, where conversation, creativity, thoughts and ideas are free to flourish.

You use that home as your children’s first school and understand that you are their first teacher. You teach the things you want them to know by modeling them yourself. If you don’t want your kids cowering in fear and lacking confidence, then you can’t cower in fear and lack confidence.

Introduce your children to heroes, both past and present, real-people heroes who have stood strong in the face of challenge and adversity. Then show your children how to stand—for things that are good and true and honorable.

And if you claim to hold the Christian faith, don’t just hold it, live it. Live those words about loving the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. A scholar friend says the word neighbor means nearest. Demonstrate how to love those nearest, in your families, schools, neighborhoods, work places, houses of worship and the businesses where you shop.

If you do even a few of these things, the clouds won’t seem so ominous. Nothing dispels the darkness like a few shafts of light.

Going to the wall for cake

The incident would not have happened were it not for our deep love of wedding cake.

Four of us served at a wedding reception: our oldest daughter who made her own wedding cake and tends to be a perfectionist; our youngest daughter who also made her own wedding cake and resents being bossed by her older sister; an artistic family friend who hovers over every food ­­­detail like a mother hen, and me, whose strength is being able to panic in a crisis.

The reception was in a beautiful old building with high ceilings, very tall windows, very tall doors and in the process of being restored to its former glory.

The food and the cake were in a room at the back of the building accessible by an exterior entrance. Being that the building hadn’t quite made it all the way back to glory, the exterior door did not yet have a handle. But it was functional as long as you remembered not to close the door all the way.

Someone (who is not important, at least not when I tell the story) let the door close all the way. The four of us stood there dazed. You can’t have a wedding reception without food, let alone a wedding cake—a beautiful cake made by the bride herself. The marriage probably wouldn’t even be legal without cake.

The perfectionist noted that the very old and very tall door did not fit flush at t­­he top. Her younger sister offered to boost her up so she might reach the top of the door. We’ll never know if it was a sincere offer or an opportunity to settle old scores. In any case, that’s when the screaming began.

“Aiiiieeeee!” howled the one whose backside, now six feet above ground, wobbled in her sister’s hands.

“You’re not the lightest thing!” her sister yelled.

The mother hen and I darted back and forth positioning ourselves to catch the one teetering in the air.

“Higher!” the airborne one cried. “I can’t reach it.”

“This is as high as I can go!” moaned the base.

A car drove by slowly. The driver rolled down his window, raised a cell phone and drove away.

“My arms are giving way!” screamed the base.

“Careful!” clucked the mother hen.climbing-the-door

“Stretch!” I yelled. (It’s always easy to encourage those in the air when you’re the one on the ground.)

“I’m going for it,” cried the one in the air who had gained fame as a toddler for scaling door casings.

“NOOOOO! Don’t risk your life for food,” I screamed, my priorities clearly out of whack.

She kicked off her shoes, curled her toes and began inching her way up the brick.

“I can’t look” cried the mother hen, burying her head beneath her wing.

“Got it!” she shouted, pulling the door open, then doing an unsightly dismount nearly crushing her sister, the family friend and myself.

We got the food and the cake and it was the best lemon cake in the history of wedding cake.

Every wedding is special, but this was one we’ll never forget. I still have nightmares.

Getting burned and bummed on fall crafts

It’s PSL season. You know what that is, right? Pumpkin spice latte. It’s not just a drink, it is the official kickoff for fall—the ref’s whistle signaling that it’s time to break out the sweaters, boots, cider, pumpkins, candy corn and endless adorable crafts.

Not wanting to miss out, I tried a pumpkin spice latte. I drank what I could, dumped the rest of it down the sink and stood there wishing I had my money back.

PSL did not kick off fall for me. It only made me revert to my original thought on pumpkin—that it is a bland vegetable made tolerable only by being in a pie.

The same women sipping PSLs and savoring the arrival of fall are flocking to Pinterest in search of adorable crafts. Our youngest daughter has already made a wooden sign with arrows pointing different directions that say bonfire, apple cider, hay rides. She’s clever, crafty and decisive like a good crafter should be.

My last Pinterest project (make that Pinterest fail) involved thousands of small red beads, a hot glue gun and a wooden cutout. The end product was supposed to be a festive Christmas decoration to hang on your door. Mine turned out looking like a giant red N. Having been born in Nebraska, every time I walked by it I yelled, “Go Huskers!”

Besides, the husband asked if it was really necessary for me to craft. He claims his nerves can’t take the sudden outbursts and shrieking. I tend to be careless with the hot glue gun.

PSL and crafting may be out by a process of elimination, but there’s always outdoor decor. I see friends on Facebook talking about spending entire afternoons putting up fall décor.

I was thinking maybe décor was my call, when I heard about Mum Mania on my favorite Saturday morning home and garden show broadcast from a local hardware store—big mums at low prices. “Come on down,” they said. So I went on down.

I was feeling confident about my outdoor seasonal décor potential. Maybe Mum Mania was where I would excel.picture-mums-here

I purchased four incredibly big mums for an incredibly good price. After dropping three off for other people, I took the last one home and stuck it in a pot.

The wind blew it over in the night. The big clay pot cracked and broke into pieces and so did the mum. I kept pieces of the broken mum to remind myself that outdoor décor can burn you faster than a hot glue gun.

My last chance for savoring the arrival of clear days and crisp nights was fall fashion. Then I discovered women are wearing one-size-fits-all plaid wool ponchos. A large plaid poncho on a height-challenged person such as myself looks like I barreled through a horse blanket head first and took the blanket with me. Whenever I try to pull that look off, people stop and ask, “How’s the horse?”

Fall used to be my favorite season.

Birds aren’t the only ones taking flight

I’m not sure how much longer the two of us can fit into this wicker chair together, but for now we fit just fine—snug, but fine. She’s a willowy thing, long legs, hair flying in her face, serious one minute, pure goofball the next. We are on the porch leafing through the Sibley Backyard Birding cards.

“Did you know a swift can sleep when it flies?” she says.


“Is that right?” I ask. “How do you know that?”

“We read it in a book.”

“Amazing,” I say.

“Yep, amazing,” she echoes.

Amazing is that she looked a whole lot like a baby bird herself when she was born, just over 3 pounds. Now here she is sitting strong and healthy, neurons firing, feet swinging, talking about birds, bicycles without training wheels and cartwheels.

“Amazing,” I say. It really is.

“Look at this one, Grandma. We’ve seen this one.”

“Looks like that blue jay slicked his hair back with mousse, doesn’t it?”

She giggles, leafing through the bird cards lickety-split. The stack is in disarray and cards are tumbling in every direction. This is exactly how she’s growing—with amazing speed, with life and learning cascading in every direction.

“Listen,” she whispers. “A woodpecker. Do you hear?”

Oh, I hear. I heard when she cried nearly nonstop the first six months of life, when she babbled first words and now as she chatters nonstop about her new shoes, trips to the library and how she’s stuffy from allergies.

A robin swoops over to the crabapple tree and perches on a branch.

“Look up his song, Grandma.”

I play the robin’s song on my phone. “Cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily.” And then the robin in the tree answers. “Cheer-up, cheer-up, cheer-up.”

“He’s talking to your phone!” she squeals.

“Phone call for Mr. Robin on line one, please.”

She is beyond delighted and I am delighted that she is delighted, knowing that these moments will pass us both by all too quickly.

The robin swoops down to the lawn. She watches him intently, wondering what he might find and speculating that he probably has a nest nearby. The robin hops around, pecks a couple of times and pulls out a fat, juicy worm. He tilts his head as if to show us his catch. And then he takes off.

“Look at him fly,” she says.

I’m looking. Believe me, I’m looking.

Wary of the secret ingredient

We have a long-standing family tradition of thinking someone may be trying to harm us in the kitchen. It’s not that we’re paranoid, it’s just that we all think somebody is out to get us.

When my brother was 4, he watched our mom make hot cocoa at the stove. He studied her mixing milk, sugar and cocoa in a pan over a flame. When she poured in a splash of vanilla, he asked if she was trying to poison him.

There was no convincing him. He’d seen what he’d seen.

Because such suspicion is deeply embedded in a family’s DNA, years ago when one of our girls watched me make guacamole and saw me add lemon juice, she asked me what I was up to. As though I was doing something devious.

“It keeps it from turning brown,” I explained.

She actually made me feel criminal making guacamole.

Family stayed with us over the weekend and I made scrambled eggs Saturday morning, sprinkling them with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Later, the 7-year-old took me aside and said, “Grandma, I liked pepper on the eggs. It makes them spicy.”

“Good,” I said.

“But we don’t eat salt.” She tilted her head and shot me a look that said, “What do you have to say for yourself, woman?”

Guilty—that’s what I have to say for myself. Guilty of seasoning eggs.

Not only is our family suspicious, we do our best to spread suspicion to incoming family members.

We have a son-in-law who detests tomatoes. He so detests them it even says so on the back of his driver’s license: Designated Organ Donor and Hater of Tomatoes.

I persuaded him there was nothing as wonderful as a sun-dried tomato packed in olive oil. So he tried one. Cautiously. He chewed it a couple times, looked at me like I was trying to kill him and then spit it out.

There’s been a distance between us ever since.

We were at our son’s place in Chicago a while back and I was stunned to see him hunched over a bottle of vodka at the kitchen sink on a Sunday morning.

“Is everything all right?” I asked.

He said yes, he and his wife have been making their own vanilla by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol for two to three months and he was just straining some for a specialty coffee.

He gave me a bottle to bring home.

I was straining some vanilla from the big vodka bottle into the little bottle I keep in the spice cabinet when the husband walked in.

“I didn’t know you drank,” he said. “And before 9 a.m.?”

“I don’t,” I said. “It’s vanilla.”

“Sure it is.”






Barbecue and back roads reveal more than what you see

It is simply understood that you don’t visit my hometown of Kansas City and leave there without some of the city’s famous barbecue sauces—Jack Stack, Gates, Blues Hog, Rufus Teague and Smokin’ Guns—which is why when everybody else was semi-conscious from back-to-back feasts of smoked brisket, pulled pork and burnt ends, I announced I was going to the grocery.

“Do you know how to get there?”

I said sure, but I wasn’t really. My brother’s place is outside of the city along back roads of chip and seal, stretches of asphalt here and there and winding highways like Y that slide into other winding highways named YY. And no, you don’t call it Y-Y, you call it double Y.

My nephew announces that he would like to go along. My nephew can’t see. He wore glasses and contacts for a time to enhance what sight remained, then sight left him completely. He mostly keeps his eyes closed now. It’s probably been a decade since he has seen vague outlines of forms.

“Do you really know how to get there, Aunt Lori?” he asks, buckling his seatbelt.

“Sorta, kinda,” I say.

He chuckles. “Hang a right out of the driveway.”

Everything in the country wears thick layers of gray dust courtesy of the clouds cars and trucks kick up as they barrel down the road. But a noisy rain has passed through this afternoon. The land and vegetation, freshly showered, are so green and lush you suspect wet paint on everything in sight.

“We’ll pass some pipes up the road. After that turn right.”

Seconds later, we pass large white and red pipes, the sort used for drainage.

“Pretty sky,” I say. “It looks like orange and lemon sherbet all swirled together.”
small sunset

“Nice,” he says.

“What’s with the house with 15 trucks out front?” I ask.

“On my right? Yeah, I don’t know what’s up.”

Around a curve and on a straightaway are a small herd of goats in a low-lying pasture.

“They’re fainting goats,” he says.

He has a phenomenal memory and uncanny sense of place and direction.

We approach the edge of town and he asks if I see duplexes at the exact moment we drive by some. “One of my good friends used to live there,” he says. “Turn by the Quick Trip up ahead.”

“There’s a road before it and a road after it,” I say.

“Turn after, not before.”

We’re in the business center now. He names all the big box stores as we pass them, correctly and in sequence.

We leave the grocery with bottles of barbeque sauce jostling in plastic bags stretched thin.

“Want to take a different way home?” he asks with a grin.


“Go down to the end of the lot and turn right. When my friend Phillip and I take this road we can get from my house to the Arby’s parking lot in 10 minutes.” He laughs and slaps his leg.

The sun throws its last long rays of golden light across a field of wheat. The clouds and the sky are a mosaic of color so beautiful as to be distracting. It’s good to have a guide.



Let them eat cake — lots of it

I should be in an advertisement with crumbs and frosting all over my face and a large headline that reads, “Got Cake?” We have celebrated 10 family birthdays in the past several months. We’ve had a lot of cake—according to the scales, about three pounds’ worth.
There was vanilla with fudge icing, a bird nest cake, a rosebud cake, cheesecake, angel food cake, cake accompanied by sparklers, crème got cakebrulee in lieu of cake, a princess cake and a pirate cake.

This birthday marathon is akin to a car’s odometer rolling over to 100,000. All of the grands have rolled over in a fairly short time span. Their ages are once again in consecutive numerical order and can be recited rapid fire: 7, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and 8 months.

They’re getting older now, so we’re no longer doing as much of that move where someone sniffs a diaper, thrusts a little one at another adult and says, “Here, this one belongs to you!” We’re doing a lot more of “Who needs to go potty? When was the last time you went potty?” Well, that and yelling at the boys, “Don’t do that outside! You’re in the city, not in the woods!”

The dress-up box remains popular, although the tutus, high heels and old purses are running neck-and-neck in the popularity polls with capes and masks, Viking helmets, a plastic sword, a safari hat and a red felt cowboy hat that has weathered some brutal cattle drives.

The doll stroller still gets a workout, but the wagons equally so. The greatest delight is finding a way to connect an old small metal wagon to a deluxe plastic wagon. Together they make a terrific rumble over the sidewalks, shaking the neighbors’ windows and give new meaning to the term wagon train.

The parents of the grands share similar approaches to electronics and digital devices in that they believe they can wait. That’s not to say the older ones don’t know what a selfie is or how to place a call. It’s just that there are other more pressing things to do—like flood the sandbox, drench your cousins or go on a hike looking for leaves, tracks and animal bones.

Once in a blue moon the crowd goes high-brow on us with an occasional program. There has been dancing, singing, recitations and a blossoming fiddle player who does a snappy “Happy Birthday” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” a tune that if you hear more than twice will remain in your head for 72 hours straight.

It is chaos when we are all together. Wonderful, blessed chaos. We do best with the chaos, birthday and otherwise, when the weather is good and the overflow can spill outside and into the backyard.

Naturally, I’m hoping for an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Give kids a break and start school later

There was a time you could tell when school was starting by the school supply aisles at the big box stores. They looked like the aftermath of a tornado—shell-shocked parents, binders strewn across floors, backpacks upended, and pencils driven straight through the display of crayons and markers. But now the school supply shelves are neat. There is no whirlwind rush for supplies, because there is no single “back-to-school” date.
bus to school

School start dates are all over the calendar, leap-frogging earlier and earlier into August and some jumping all the way into July. They say they’re balancing the calendar but I never knew the calendar was out of balance. Did July try to crowd in between January and February? Did the months ending in “er” suddenly rise up and demand Spring placement?

I appreciate that kids may forget much of what they learned during summer vacation. The theory is that if schools shorten summer vacation, kids will retain more. Plus, they’ll get a one-week fall vacation, a one-week Thanksgiving vacation followed a by two-week vacation over the winter holidays and another week-long vacation in the spring. I thought vacation time was the problem.

I’d like to go on record as an advocate for unbalancing the calendar. Yes, I’d like to propose school start dates should be pushed back to September in order to accommodate the lazy days of summer. Who says summer isn’t educational?

I support extending summer so kids can enjoy good nutrition—stand next to a tomato plant, smell the vines, pluck cherry tomatoes in rapid succession and pop them directly into their mouths.

I favor extending summer so students can learn math by charting the proliferation and distribution of zucchini, discovering how one small plant can feed the entire state of Wisconsin.

I support extending summer so every child can have the full sensory experience of sweet corn – smelling the husks, pulling back the silks, feeling butter grease their hands and run down their arms as the scorching August sun turns the grass to a dry, brittle brown.

I hear your opposition: “Your unbalanced calendar is only about food.”

Not true, my unbalanced calendar also puts a premium on boredom. The last few weeks of August should be reserved for stretching time, sitting outside in the evening, feeling the heat evaporate from the earth, watching the sun dip low, listening to crickets, learning the art of dawdling and the sheer pleasure of nothingness. Everyone should experience a season of boredom. It’s how you discover what you enjoy.

I also stand by the unbalanced calendar plan as an economic stimulus package. Freeing August from the grips of school calendars allows time for more family road trips, which generates monies for tourism as well as additional paychecks for restaurant workers, hotel workers and lifeguards. Unbalance the calendar and we’ll have that federal debt paid down in no time. Or not.

I’ve made my case. Now, like every politician, I conclude my argument with that old reliable tug at the heart: Do it for the children.